SPU mentioned in Title IX class action suit

33 LGBTQIA+ individuals sue US Department of Education over treatment at evangelical institutions

Kyle Morrison, News Editor

Seattle Pacific University was among 25 colleges mentioned in a class action lawsuit filed  against the U.S. Department of Education on Monday, requesting that they end their complicity in abuses against the LGBTQIA+ community at taxpayer funded institutions.

SPU alum Spencer Vigil stands in front of a mural by Stevie Shao. Vigil is one of 33 students suing the department of education after experiencing discriminatory and harassing behavior at religious institutions. (Kevin Truong)

According to Paul Southwick, who is the lawyer leading the suit for the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, many religious institutions, including SPU, claim a religious exemption to deny LGBTQIA+ individuals Title IX rights despite receiving federal funding.

“When there’s taxpayer money involved, which is the case at these schools, then the constitution requires the schools to play by non-discrimination rules,” Southwick explained. “Now currently, Congress, through this religious exemption to Title IX has given a statutory exemption, but the Constitution trumps statutes and so our argument is that the Constitution prohibits this exemption.”

SPU graduate Spencer Vigil is accusing SPU of discrimination and harrasment as part of the nationwide class action suit. He says that he experienced discrimination from the SPU administration, faculty, and students during his senior year in 2019, when he came out as a transgender man.

Vigil says that he tried out for a male role in a school play during that year and was asked to sign a document that said he was violating SPU’s lifestyle expectations.

“Here I am signing this paper that by doing this one musical I can have my scholarships taken away from me, I can lose part of my financial aid, I could possibly be expelled or held back from graduating on time,” Vigil explained. “I just really wanted to do something I was passionate about, so of course I was going to sign it.”

Vigil explained that going to Southwick was a last resort and that he really wanted to give SPU a chance to make things right.

“I kinda wanted a public apology and that was something I talked to the Title IX coordinator about and it just kinda never happened,” Vigil said. “I feel like I gave SPU literally so much grace, to have them literally give me none in return.”

When he went to the Title IX coordinator and told them about the issues he was facing at SPU he was supposedly turned away because of SPU’s religious exemption. Vigil reported other incidents of abuse including unaccepting faculty, and being forcibly pushed out of men’s restrooms by students.

The university issued a statement to The Falcon regarding the lawsuit and Vigil’s testimony.

“SPU is aware of the lawsuit and is reviewing the complaint. While the lawsuit is not against SPU specifically, SPU recognizes that the topic of LGBTQIA+ student experience at religious colleges, including SPU, is a vital issue,” SPU said. “SPU wants to make clear that it welcomes students regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity and is committed to cultivating a supportive campus culture.”

Southwick was already preparing the class action lawsuit when Vigil came to him in January. Southwick, who is gay, also experienced discriminatory abuse when he attended George Fox University in Oregon.

“As a queer man myself, I was closeted there, went through conversion therapy at the suggestion of the campus pastor and when I finally came out and went through law school, I understood more the kind of damage that is done by the kinds of policies and practices at certain institutions,” Southwick recounted.

According to a study done by the Religious Exemption Accountability Project and College Pulse, which is referenced in the lawsuit, LGBTQIA+ individuals on christian campuses are seven times more likely to be sexually assaulted and twice as likely to face disciplinary action than their peers on their respective campuses.

The lawsuit is asking for the federal court to eliminate the religious exemption located in Title IX claiming that it violates the First, Fifth, and 14th Amendments of the Constitution. It’s also asking for monetary coverage of attorney’s fees and any other relief the court deems necessary to the plaintiffs involved.

The lawsuit will begin in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon, where Southwick is hoping for a nationwide injunction that will eliminate the Title IX exemption. He is still considering whether he wants to sue for preliminary relief for the plaintiffs while the main case goes to trial.

Vigil hopes that this lawsuit, and his part in it, will raise awareness about the mistreatment of LGBTQIA+ individuals on SPU’s campus.

“There’s a lot of people that ask ‘why did you pick SPU in the first place,’ when the answer is, my spirituality and the way I identify regarding my gender and sexuality, those aren’t polar things, you can have both and one does not exclude the other.”